Movie review: 'Churchill' is an episodic slice of an epic life

April 14, 2011|By Michael O'Sullivan, The Washington Post

"Winston Churchill: Walking With Destiny" would make a perfectly good PBS or History Channel documentary — Episode 4, say, in an exhaustive, 15-part miniseries about World War II. Sober, thorough and uplifting, it focuses on a very thin slice of historical pie: the career of the celebrated British prime minister from his ascension to the job in May 1940 to the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and America's entry into World War II.

Though there is a little prologue and epilogue, the bulk of the film (by director Richard Trank) looks at how Churchill shepherded his countrymen through the evacuation of Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain and the London Blitz, keeping up national morale until the Yanks finally decided to join his nation's fight.

Trank (with co-writer and co-producer Rabbi Marvin Hier) rightly credits Churchill for his steely political resolve and legendary skills as an inspirational orator. But he also gives a nod to the leader's long-standing condemnation of anti-Semitism and his early, prescient mistrust of Hitler. The unequivocal message of the film, which includes interviews with Churchill's grandchildren, biographers and historians such as Doris Kearns Goodwin, is this: Without Churchill, there might still be Nazi flags flying over European capitals.

There's no disputing Churchill's pivotal role in history. And Trank's film, which should be catnip to students of military strategy, brings the great man's influence on the course of world events into sharp relief, even though Churchill's name is not mentioned for long stretches of the film.

Still, what separates "Walking With Destiny" from a run-of-the-mill war documentary isn't necessarily its insights into its main subject but its tangential stories about fascinating nobodies.

Winston Churchill may have been "walking with destiny," a phrase that comes from a line Churchill used about himself. But it's people like Billy Fiske — an American Olympic athlete who flew with the RAF and was one of the first American pilots killed in action — who make the documentary come to life. They're mentioned only in passing, but they were walking with destiny, too.

—Michael O'Sullivan, The Washington Post

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